I woke this morning to a few tweets informing me that today is the 41st birthday of the Gravelly Hill Interchange, better known as Spaghetti Junction. Within these birthday messages lay a joke, a myth about Junction 6 that lies at the heart of many an outsider’s knowledge of Birmingham. This is the myth that traversing Spaghetti is hard.
As an incomer I’d heard the stories and bought into the myth about M6J6. Gravelly Hill Interchange existed to me in quiz questions and in the banter of the family friendly (but in hindsight probably a bit rapey) light entertainers of 198os television. Spaghetti Junction was a symbol of Birmingham, a simple icon or emblem. The junction was an avatar that stood for the city and in so doing pegged her identity to the story of crumbling concrete post war utopias: Spaghetti Junction was sold to the world as a folly, a dysfunctional, unworkable, unnavigable tribute to man’s over-confidence, and it cast that aura onto the city that it guarded.
The first time I drove across the interchange I missed it. I’d got as far as Park Circus before I asked my copilot when we’d see Spaghetti and he told me I’d sailed through it a half mile or so before. On the ground it’s just road, you can’t see it when you experience it, all you can see is your lane, your sign, your exit. It only exists as a complex system when abstracted from the mundanity of mirrors, signals and manoeuvres. Frankly it’s a disappointment. It disappoints you because it works. This isn’t in the script.
How does one get lost on Spaghetti Junction? It’s hard to. You might momentarily lose concentration and miss a turn but if you do that is a fault in you, not a fault in the junction. For 41 years it’s worked. It’s battered, it’s bruised, and I’m sure some of what your average bar stool historian might say about sloppy construction might well stand up. These are not the issues I wish to address today. I just want to tell you clearly and plainly: Spaghetti Junction is a piece of piss.